Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)
Commonwealth Christmas Overture Op.64 (1957)
Clarinet Concerto No.1 Op.20 (1948)
Divertimento No.2 Op.24/75 (1950)
Larch Trees Op.3 (1943)
Philharmonic Concerto Op.120 (1976)
The Padstow Lifeboat Op.94a (1967, orch. Philip Lane,2000)
Michael Collins (clarinet)
BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba
rec. 2019/22, MediaCity UK Salford, Manchester
CHANDOS CHAN20152 
What better way to start the New Year than with a bumper disc of Malcolm Arnold at his most entertaining. The programme of this recording has been somewhat dictated by music missing from the extensive Chandos catalogue of the composer, so the result is something of a seeming hotch-potch albeit a very engaging one. Conductor Rumon Gamba and the ever-reliable BBC Philharmonic are old hands at Arnold and this style of repertoire which they play with genuine flair and engagement throughout. While none of the repertoire is new to the catalogue, four of the works are receiving only their second commercial recordings and with the exception of an excellent 2015 recording of the Philharmonic Concerto on Dutton from Martin Yates and the RSNO all the other recordings of these works are over twenty years old. Furthermore, most of those older recordings appear to be out of print. The greatest loss in those terms were the eleven discs recorded on the short lived Conifer label by their founder John Kehoe which included all nine symphonies under Vernon Handley as well as the Clarinet Concerto, Larch Trees and Philharmonic Concerto offered here. They briefly appeared in a tremendous bargain box from Sony but that too has now fallen prey to the deleter’s axe. Decca sourced the same recordings as the backbone for their three boxes that formed a “Malcolm Arnold Edition” – whether or not that is still available I am not sure.
So even if this new disc were not as fine as it is, it would pretty much have the field to itself. In orchestral garb it is the nine symphonies that are the most deeply personal and often emotionally raw works by Arnold. The expressive range of the works here are different – not simply full of bubbling bonhomie but occasionally terse, even aggressive if always colourful and exciting. The most curious work and the one that still fails to engage me opens the disc; the Commonwealth Christmas Overture Op.64. In the liner Mervyn Cooke explains its origins as part of a BBC celebration to mark 25 years of Royal broadcasts on Christmas Day in 1957. Preceding the Queen’s address that year there was a one hour programme to celebrate the jubilee of the annual Commonwealth Christmas Day programme on BBC Radio so this Arnold overture was commissioned to mark both events and was first broadcast at 2.00 pm that day. This is a long overture – 15:17 in this performance and a slightly mind-boggling 18:55 in its only other recording by Arnold with the LPO on Reference Recordings dating from 1992. Arnold was known as a fine and inspiring conductor but there was a distinct trend in his later recordings to be significantly slower than other versions and indeed his own score markings would suggest. However that Reference disc remains a compulsory purchase for admirers of this composer and still sounds very fine indeed. As can be gleaned from the timings – which for once are an accurate reflection of how the work is handled – Gamba keeps the tempi of every section moving where Arnold finds time for extra weight and reflection. I find it hard not to hear this as a work that the prodigiously able composer could toss off almost by the yard. All his fingerprints are there from thrilling brass fanfares, nonchalantly memorable tunes, infectious rhythms, brilliant orchestration – the list goes on. The 50’s after all were the decade when Arnold established himself as a composer of seemingly endless good humour and musical wit through numerous film scores [the 1954 Hobson’s Choice shares the spirit of this overture’s second subject quite notably] and enduringly popular works such as the English and Scottish Dances, Tam O’Shanter as well as his famous Hoffnung Concert contributions. After roughly 6:30 of boisterous curtain-raising, the mood relaxes (this is where Arnold’s own recording slows right back to something far more pensive than offered here). There is nothing overtly “seasonal” about any of this music unless this passage represents some twinkling stars perhaps(?!) but it is certainly rather beautiful and evocative. After another two and a half minutes of this gentle rapture for no apparent reason at all a Caribbean Calypso band appears with the orchestra silent except for the double basses. They dance around for another two minutes before a rather cinematic “cross-fade” returns to the opening material with a typically big finish. Clearly the work is meant to entertain and has no greater meaning or purpose but hard not to hear it as anything except Arnold writing to order with all his usual facility and ear for effective orchestral writing. The performance here – and the Chandos 24-bit recording – is excellent, to my ear Gamba hits just about ideal tempi and feel and the orchestra play with exactly the right kind of virtuosity and ‘bounce’. Just three years later in 1960 Arnold would return to the idea of integrating Caribbean instruments and atmosphere into a major score in his Symphony No.4. That remains a powerful and intriguing work and one where the bleaker aspects of the composer’s world first became publically apparent.
The most recorded work on this disc is the Clarinet Concerto No.1 Op.20. Arnold’s concerti occupy an important but individual part of his output. There are quite a lot of works – the Decca box includes 17 concertante works – but nearly all of the ‘traditional’ concerti are relatively small scale, using reduced orchestrations and the usual fast-slow-fast format. None of the works have gained great fame – the second clarinet concerto with its infectious “Pre-Goodman Rag” finale is about as popular as it gets. The first concerto is an early – 1948 – work but it shows just how impressive Arnold could be writing absolute music on a compact scale. The soloist here is Michael Collins who recorded it as part of the Conifer survey back in 1988. Then the conductor was Mark Stephenson with his London Musici who together were one of the cornerstones of the Conifer recordings. Making direct comparisons between the two performances are interesting. Collins’ playing is simply superb on both; expressive and humorous, articulate, virtuosic – tonally remarkably similar. The older recording in isolation still sounds good with engineer Anthony R. Howell capturing the Snape Maltings acoustic very well. The player line-up of London Musici was pretty stellar too but it was a small ensemble – playing 188.8.131.52.2. In contrast the BBC PO is audibly a larger string group but crucially they sound a fraction more familiar (more rehearsal time?) with the music and Gamba is significantly more imaginative with his phrasing and attention to dynamics and accentuation – Stephenson is ‘plainer’. In the new recording the outer movements are quicker – the closing molto allegro con fuoco – crackles along while the central Andante con moto is a full minute slower. This again benefits especially from the greater expressive freedom and intensity Gamba finds. I know other versions by Janet Hilton on HMV/Warner with Norman del Mar and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta from 1985 and Emma Johnson on ASV with Ivor Bolton and the ECO. All are good but I would now place this new version as top of the pile.
The Divertimento No.2 Op.24/75 is a great example of unaffected, unbuttoned Arnold. Originally written for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 1950 this is a perfect example of the populist Arnold. Given its instant appeal my only surprise is that this appears to be only its 2nd recording. The first was as a coupling on the Classico label to Douglas Bostock’s performance of the Symphony No.5 with the Munich Symphony Orchestra which was Volume 6 of that label’s British Music Collection. To my mind this was one of the best releases in this enterprising series but unfortunately it is now out of print. However, it did reappear as disc 9 in the 10 disc “British Symphonic Collection” licenced to Membran. Perfectly good though the Bostock performance is/was, it is trumped both technically and musically by the flair and brio of this new version. Many young musicians will have encountered Arnold’s music first from within youth orchestras and this work epitomises the appeal of the composer at his most relaxed. The writing for all departments of the orchestra is rewarding and gratifying. Within the sub ten minute timeframe Arnold follows his favoured fast-slow-fast format with the central Nocturne a beautiful piece of gently pensive writing. Again Gamba’s skill with this music is by simply allowing it to be played with direct and unaffected brilliance. The tempi strike me as ideal and again when compared to Bostock the differences in timings are small but telling. The opening Fanfare-Allegro is 1:58 to Bostock’s 2:12, the Nocturne – lento 3:40 to 3:11 and the closing Chaconne – Allegro con spirit 3:20 to 3:37. In other words Gamba pushes the tempi quicker in the quick movements and slower in the slow. Add to that tighter articulations, sharper rhythmic snaps and/or greater expressive rubato and the result is a more sharply characterful performance.
The Larch Trees Op.3 is another Arnold rarity. Not just in terms of his discography but his own body of work. This dates from 1943 as did the other work that made his name more widely known – the wonderful Beckus the Dandipratt Overture Op.5. The latter has remained justly popular – it was after all the very first piece of Arnold’s to be commercially recorded (by Eduard van Beinum with the LPO – with Arnold playing principal trumpet). Conversely the Larch Trees disappeared completely for over 40 years. It appeared on Conifer again performed by Mark Stephenson and the London Musici this time recorded in Watford Town Hall in 1991. What makes this an unusual work for Arnold is the designation of Tone Poem. In the midst of all the symphonies, suites, dances, overtures, concerti and ballets there does not appear to be another tone poem. If Beckus bears many fingerprints of the mature composer, Larch Trees bears nearly none. A chordal voicing or drooping bluesy phrase hints at music to come but the innocent ear would struggle to identify the mature composer. Yet therein lies the fascination – this is the twenty two year old composer experimenting with a limited orchestral palette revealing influences yet to be digested. The orchestra is small almost Classical – pairs of wind with three horns (no other brass or percussion) and strings. The writing is effectively austere with Sibelius the most obvious influence. Returning to this work – it is a long time since I listened to the Stephenson performance I have to admit – I have been very impressed by it. More so than I recall originally. Interestingly, Gamba is significantly quicker than Stephenson; 8:23 compared to 11:15 although in this instance I do like the broader frozen landscape Stephenson achieves. Gamba draws more attentive playing from the Manchester orchestra but the urgency he favours seems slightly contrary to the bleakness Arnold evokes. The climax Stephenson achieves at around 6:40 [4:55 for Gamba] seems harder-won – more Sibelian in fact. But to be fair both performances are very impressive and underline the impression that this is a score that is considerably more than ‘just’ a piece of juvenilia.
Near the other end of Arnold’s compositional career is the Philharmonic Concerto Op.120 written in 1976. This was a showpiece commissioned by the LPO under their then principal conductor Bernard Haitink for its bicentennial tour of the USA. Again the fast-slow-fast format prevails this time marked Intrada – Vivace, Aria – Andantino and Chacony – Energico. According to Mervyn Cooke although the work received a positive critical reception at the time of its premiere, since then Arnold biographers and commentators have been less enamoured with Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris describing it as “…. not a pretty firework display, it is a violent, brash and deafening one, with a sad intermission in the middle….”. I would suggest part of the “disappointment” might be down to unfulfilled expectation. If the listener is expecting another twinkling-eyed but virtuosic Little Suite or Divertimento that it most certainly is not that. The humour is forced, the energy is frenetic and the lyricism soured. But look where the opus number places this work – between the hugely fraught 7th and 8th Symphonies and very close to the literally suicidal String Quartet No.2 Op.118. This is Arnold at one of his very darkest times rather desperately trying to make out that everything is just fine while the music tells a different story. As such – and the same is true of much late Arnold up to and including the masterly austere Symphony No.9 – this work is a part of his creative testament. Again this new performance is simply excellent – unflinchingly muscular and dynamic with an aggressive edge that seems wholly, if somewhat uncomfortably, appropriate. The Conifer performance was overseen by the great Vernon Handley – the other mainstay of that series – conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. That is another tremendous performance. Perhaps the BBC Philharmonic strings as recorded are a little richer and fuller and again Gamba is a fraction quicker in the outer movements but in this instance this does not substantively impact the ‘feel’ of the music. The Conifer recording is already 25 years old (engineered by Richard Millard in October 1997 in Walthamstow Town Hall) but gives little to this new disc in purely technical terms. There is a more recent performance as mentioned on Dutton from 2015 with Martin Yates conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. There it acts as a filler to a superb performance of the harrowing Symphony No.7 which transformed my appreciation of that work. However, although still fine, the performance of the Philharmonic Concerto is not quite the equal of either Handley or Gamba – in part because the resonance of the Dutton SACD-engineered disc smoothes away the angular violence of this score. There is a live BBC broadcast recording on the LPO’s own label from October 1976 of the World Premiere under Haitink from the Royal Festival Hall that certainly emphasises the aggression of the score but the engineering does not reveal the detail and weight of either Gamba or Handley – but of course it has important documentary value. There is a second live performance by the LPO at the RFH with Handley conducting which was part of an Arnold celebration concert recorded in September 2004. Curiously both outer movements are markedly slower and lacking the tension of Handley’s studio performance even though the playing itself is predictably good so this performance effectively rules itself out.
After the gritted teeth of the concerto, the disc ends with a collective sigh of relief – the utterly brilliant Padstow Lifeboat in its orchestral transcription by Phillip Lane. The original Brass Band version is incomparable and utterly “right” but Lane’s orchestration is a delight. This appeared on Volume 4 of ASV’s “British Light Music Discoveries” in 2001with Gavin Sutherland conducting the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Sutherland has great experience and empathy for light music such as this so his performance is a rollicking romp just a bit fleeter than Gamba with the balances on the ASV disc emphasising the wind and brass. Both performances are great fun but in this case Sutherland proves to be the even more persuasive coxswain. An interesting footnote – Arnold himself conducted the Grimethorpe Colliery Band as part of the Conifer survey of his Brass Band Music. This was back in 1993 and another case of Arnold latterly conducting his own music slower than anyone else – a full minute slower than Sutherland….
So an uplifting conclusion to a disc guaranteed to raise spirits in a dank January with performances and recordings to match or supplant any in the catalogue. Recording dates show sessions split by the covid pandemic but the sound and playing is superbly consistent. A top-notch Chandos release to start the year right down to the cover photograph of the RNLB James and Catherine Macfarlane – the eponymous Padstow Lifeboat itself. Whether or not others consider the Commonwealth Christmas Overture to be less of a seasonal turkey than I will be a question of personal taste. But even that could not be better performed than here. Certainly a disc to show the range and quality of Arnold’s mercurial genius in all its glory.
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